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“Ou Antes, o que Podem as Palavras? / Or Rather, What Can Words Do?” An interview with Carla Cruz, founder of All My Independent Women, on the occasion of the AMIW@VBKÖ exhibition in Vienna that still runs until Dec 3rd

Grassroots media in Europe
Networking & community building
Teaser Image: 

Photo: "Open Source Embroidery" a project by Ele Carpenter, with Carla in the left foreground; taken by Catarina Miranda

First of all, could you just introduce yourself shortly? And could you also present your project All My Independent Women (AMIW) a little bit? So what was the initial idea and how was the formation process?
My name is Carla Cruz, I’m a Portuguese artist, right now based in London where I’m doing my PhD in Art Practice at Goldsmith University of London. I’ve been an artist since 2000 and I’ve always been part of collectives since the very beginning of my artistic practice. So AMIW started in 2005 in Portugal and the intention was to make an exhibition. I was invited to make a solo show in a gallery that is part of an archeological Museum in Guimarães; it was such a big space and I was a little bit scared of being there alone with my work. And so it came to my mind that it would be good to show other artists’ work that were somehow connected to my own practice and helped to develop my own practice, my little network, so to speak. Back then my work was mainly focused on gender issues, so it became a show about other artists’ works and also about my own work related to gender questions, or of people that operated from a feminist perspective or methodology. And I called it All My Independent Women – AMIW. Another issue at that time for me was that I felt that a lot of these artists were less visible than their male peers or even less visible than other artists from our generation that didn’t deal with gender or even with political issues. So I felt I’m eager to give account of that and also eager in a way to pay tribute to their work and to create a place where these works could be visible. And very quickly AMIW grew into a network of these artists, so they started sharing information, we made a blog where we could upload projects that we are involved in, or calls for participation, or other things of interest, and where we could also list links to sites and blogs that interest the group.

So the blog has become a vital point of the whole project?
Yes. And I started the blog for a very practical reason: I wanted to share with the participants little texts that would be in the exhibition, taken out of a book that connected the whole exhibition, which was the Dicionário da Crítica Feminista (“Dictionary of Feminist Critique” by Ana Gabriela Macedo and Ana Luísa Amaral, Porto: Ed. Afrontamento, 2005, ISBN: 978-972-36-0758-1). I transcribed some of the entries, translated them into English for the participants that didn’t speak Portuguese and uploaded them on the blog. So in the beginning it was just very practical for that, to be a place where people could just quickly open files, see photos of the exhibition space and the texts so that they could see where their work would be. And very quickly we started adding links and then someone wanted to post something else, I also started posting a lot. I was very active in the first year in posting about everything I knew that was happening related to feminism. So it became a bit of a meeting point. Well, there are several contributors to the blog, but nevertheless 90% of the blogs’ entries are mine, so there was a moment when I was less active because I wasn’t really sure if people were using it. But then it became a kind of reminder for myself, so every time I found a site of other artists that I felt connected to the project I linked it, so to be a little bit like my notebook. But then there was a moment when I realized that it also was working as an archive for a lot of people in the AMIW project. So a place where they go back to find something saying: “I know Carla has for sure linked this, so I will find it on the blog”.

So you are the main contributor to the blog, but there also other contributors. So you founded it together with other people?
Well I opened the blog and the account. And from the very beginning André Alves was part of it, Paula Tavares and Catarina Carneiro de Sousa. More recently Nina Höchtl, because she is also a producer of this show (AMIW@VBKÖ), and she is also quite active now in posting on the blog. Nevertheless, I wish that it would be more dynamic, but it is also ok to have observers.

And do you also cooperate with other groups, so other feminist groups, other media groups or other artist groups? So you have the cooperation with the different exhibition sites….?
Yes. But I have to say that I’m much more active in the visual arts than in other networks. So there are different feminist groups and blogs, but in those groups I’m just an observer and not a participant. I have been trying to get connected to other groups: you link to a group but you also want to be linked by them, you really want to establish that connection so that it is really rooted on both sides, which not always happens. So for example, there was a very important case with a Portuguese group called UMAR – União de Mulheres Alternativa e Resposta (“Union of Women for Alternatives and Response”); it exists since the 70s and is the biggest women’s activist movement in Portugal. They are operating at all levels related to women’s issues, and very recently some of the core groups in the different cities have been trying to be more connected to the visual arts. And there was a group that did a feminist festival in which I participated and which I attended. But I think that their vision of visual art is very archaic and in a way I feel, I have been doing this for some years, doing this network of people that deal with feminist issues in their art practice but they haven’t arrived there. So I felt that when they organized that festival that they could have collaborated with some of these artists that have so much knowledge, so that their festival could also have a better impact in the art world. So that was a group that I really tried to connect with, but it is still slowly developing.

And how would you describe the situation in Portugal for feminist activism, groups, movements etc.?
I feel that there is a researching for or a rebirth of feminism in Portugal, there are new groups and they have a little bit more coverage. When I started to be interested in feminism and did a bit of research and reading, that was when I entered the Fine Arts Academy in the late 1990s, feminism was really, really a bad word, you didn’t want to be associated with it, you would be supposed to be this nasty, ugly woman with a moustache who is hating all men. At that time I was a member of a little collective called ZOiNA; so zoina in Portuguese people don’t really use this word but it has the same meaning like the Spanish zorra which means a woman with a bad behavior, so not really a whore but a not proper behaving woman. And we were doing interventions which we called feminist interventions. And we got a lot of strong reactions, even from friends and from the art world, and a lot of women were saying “We don’t need this anymore!”, saying “We don’t need feminism!”, saying “Women can study now. Women can go anywhere they want to go in public space.” But this is really a fiction, and a lot of these girls who said this to us when we were all in our 20s later on came and said “This was when we entered our graphic design studies”, but suddenly when they entered the market they realized how sexist it is, how they couldn’t get a job, or if they got a job they wouldn’t have a responsible position within the firm because they were women, because they were younger, etc. One of the things which I really feel about feminism in Portugal is that people have really really little knowledge about it, historically, and then they have this idea that feminism is that thing from the 70s and it’s about women burning underwear in the streets. So they got this highlight or headline thing and they stopped there. And it was very difficult for me to have conversations about feminism in Portugal, because you always have the feeling that you have to bridge people from the 70s to the 21st century, so to say: “Look, and then it happened this, and then it happened that…” And you always feel that you are going back to these conversations about dualism, about men and women, and about power, who is in power, and then you have to give account of that feminism is much more than that. I don’t think it has changed that much since the late 90s, but there are more groups involved, there are more programs than when I studied, more programs at universities that deal directly with gender issues or women’s studies or feminist studies. So hopefully we will also give a different account of feminism in Portugal.

So within the whole feminist movement there are many different forms of feminism, that’s why we speak of feminisms, e.g. black feminism, queer feminism, postcolonial feminism etc. How are you dealing with all these different feminisms?
I guess there are different perspectives among the participants of AMIW and how they position themselves regarding to feminism. Some people would affiliate more with queer studies than with hardcore feminism, or others that really position themselves in relation to a very basic idea of women’s emancipation, looking with a positive view on things that are considered as feminine, so with a more essentialist vision of sexual difference, making that that was considered as “the other” into a positive “other”, but still having this concept of “the other”. I wouldn’t really know where to position myself because I couldn’t say that I follow only one feminist path. I take things that interest me from different ones, like looking more to theoreticians that are dealing with sexual difference and others that deal more with gender studies, like Judith Butler. One of the things that you can read from my texts from 2005/06 until very recently is that for me feminism has to have an horizon or a goal to reach, a moment when we can actually do away with gender differences, so that they don’t matter anymore, or that they are not in an hierarchy anymore. Now I have a more critical view in thinking than people that deal with sexual differences, they want to reassert women, and they want to say “Yes, there are differences…”. But in a way there is still a lot to be done in terms of women’s emancipation, which was a thing that really made me feel a little bit unease when you talk about feminism and there is always the necessity that there is someone saying “Yeah, but there are women who are still battered, women are still suffering from violence”. And I always wish that we could talk about feminism without talking about that, because feminism is important for men and for women and for other things in a way that you are constructing your own subjectivity. But then again if I look at my own country – I’m living in London now, but every time when I go back and when I open a newspaper there is always a woman being killed in an extremely violent way, that you can’t understand like “Husband kills woman with an axe” and you can’t imagine: how can someone raise an axe to kill his wife. So I think maybe we still have to do a lot of work in looking at women as women, as “the other”.

Coming back to AMIW, the first exhibition was in 2005 and also the setup of the blog was then, but how did the project progress since then? Did something change?
Oh yes. When I did it in 2005 I thought: “Ok we do one project and that’s it”. That is also what you are used to do as an artist, you initiate and develop a project, you have an exhibition and then you put it down, it’s on your CV, you do some documentation and it’s done. But because we used this book, the Dictionary of feminist critique, and I invited the editors to come and see the exhibition, to talk with us and meet us, and they were so excited, they invited me to bring the show to Braga (Portugal) where they had a book presentation of the dictionary. So we installed the show there, and they did their readings in the show. So very quickly it kind of got out of hands, so it wasn’t anymore a project that I have done for a specific invitation to do a solo show. I quickly understood that I had something bigger in my hands, and also all the participants were so happy with the show and with meeting each other - some of them didn’t know each other before. So the first edition was in 2005 in Guimarães; also in 2005 there was the exhibition in Braga and in 2006 I was invited to go to Lisbon; then very quickly people that were running some sort of space and also were interested in feminist and gender issues often came and said “Oh we need to collaborate” and I said “Yes and I know with what, I have this perfect project for that and I think you’ll love it”. And that is also something very particular about AMIW and something that I want to continue, that it only happens in a place where I know that the context is the right one and that there is a relationship of care between the one who is inviting and the artists. It’s the same here at the VBKÖ in Vienna, I know that Rudolfine (= Rudolfine Lackner, president of the VBKÖ/Vienna) is concerned with the same issues that I am, so I know that we will have a good exchange. So it is not about making an exhibition so that the audience comes, it is also about making it in the right context, because then even if you only have two people coming, you know that you have the right people coming.

What are the challenges or the obstacles you faced during the last years when producing the exhibitions but also in running the blog?
I struggle very hard to open the project into a “real” network, so that there are more people who can claim ownership. Someone asked me: “Can anyone do AMIW by themselves?” And the answer is: No. But this is something very problematic for me, that I wanted to do a network that is more dispersed, but actually the network is now centered on me, a lot of the communication passes through me, through my email account etc. It makes it easy for me when I want to do it, but it is also very distressing because I wanted it to be more than that. And I’m still not really sure how I can now change that. It was for example very clear for me to bring the exhibition to Vienna. A part of the exhibition was in Coimbra (Portugal) last year and I was really anxious because I knew the space here in Vienna is really small and we didn’t have enough money to bring all the works here, so we had to make a decision what can come, who is coming. And I didn’t want to curate the show so I started to contact some of the people that are part of AMIW since the beginning, like André (Alves), Nina (Höchtl), Catarina (Carneiro de Sousa) and Paula (Tavares), asking for advice how we could do this; should we vote? should we ask? etc. And then they said: “No, it’s your project, we trust you; whatever you do we will be happy.” And that took a lot of weight, of course, but also made me think that I reached a moment where I need to evaluate what I have constructed and how I can open it up right now.

And what were the reactions to the project like? So reactions in the art world, in the public?
The most visited edition of the exhibition was the first one, because it was in an art gallery inside an archeological museum. And it is very well visited because all the district’s schools go there once a year. So during that month that the exhibition was there, a lot of children and a lot of young students came to visit it. And the reactions were really really strong, to the content, to the display - and very polarized. So some people were really happy, and it was so funny and such a different approach in contemporary arts for them, and others were very shocked, because some of the content was very sexual. For example we occupied the toilets of the museum for two specific projects, and one had to be taken down, it was about girls peeing, and the director just couldn’t face all the outraged parents anymore, so the work had to move inside the exhibition hall. But nevertheless AMIW functions within a rather limited network. I circulate more with it within academia, I give a lot of talks at universities, in gender studies, in feminist studies programs, in Portugal, in the UK as well, I have been in the Czech Republic talking about it in Brno, I have been in Spain in Seville at a festival, but more there than in the art world. Which is good because maybe if they invited me to install the show in a very nice museum I would be tempted and that maybe wouldn’t be the right context.

You’ve already talked about that the original idea of the blog was to have a platform for exchange between the participants of the exhibition, but now after six years and the 6th edition what would you say: is it also an activist project? With a broader political engagement?
Yes I think so. I think the project in itself, how it is conceived, how it grows, and that it is within the margins is in itself a very political statement in terms of saying we are providing an alternative within the art world system. Being working for so long within the visual arts I do see the glass ceiling for women. There are so many women artists working in Portugal, but then you realize that when you are operating in alternative spaces it is still very equal, there are a lot of men, a lot of women, always a little bit more men than women but it’s still quite equal, but as soon as there is a step further, to actually work with a bigger institution, to get commissions, to get paid to do work, to get collected, then it drops, and it drops dramatically, from being 40% women/60% men it goes to maybe 20% women/80% men in collections, in institutions, etc. So in that sense AMIW positions itself completely different to how the art world functions. And also in a way that is very different to the system of curatorship, I’m not at all strategically thinking about my shows, like: “Oh I should have a big name in it, so that I can attract the media”, or that I want to have a very important female artist or a work that I really love in it. I rather work more closely with the network that I know will carry on instead of having a sort of name dropping just to have a fantastic feminist show. And that I know is really an antagonism to how shows are curated. And this - I think - is political.

So you first mentioned the Dictionary of Feminist Critique, but within the AMIW project there is also the reference to the New Portuguese Letters, so are there any examples of not only feminist media but also feminist literature or cultural production that inspired you in your work?
Oh yes. I’m very connected to literature, I’m always reading something, of course I have to read a lot of theory for my own practice and my own research, but I’m also always reading literature, I’m always reading novels. I think the first feminist thing I read was Virginia Woolf, through my older sister who was also reading it, so she introduced me to it, and that was also very important for my own thinking. So there are a lot of women authors I have been reading, and in Portugal there is this book that was written in the 70s called the New Portuguese Letters (Novas Cartas Portuguesas). It’s based on an older book called Portuguese Letters (As Cartas Portuguesas) supposedly written by a nun in the 17th century who has written five passionate letters to a French knight with whom she had a little affair one imagines out of her desperate letters. These New Portuguese Letters in the 70s were written by three women – Maria Isabel Barreno, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Velho da Costa - and they took the older book as a model to do exchange between themselves, so they started writing letters to each other and all the letters are dated but not signed, so you have the date but you don’t really know who has written what, and that was their way of escaping censorship. They were writing this in Portugal during the military dictatorship of Salazar/Caetano known as Estado Novo (the New State), where people couldn’t at all meet in public space because they were always surveilled, so they could exchange these personal letters like the ones from friends. They published the book, it was immediately taken by censorship for being pornographic, against the morals, etc. It was the first time in Portuguese literature that someone wrote the word clitoris, so it was really “Oh my god this is too much! How can these women…?! What does this even mean…?! What is it?!” And I knew about this book and I knew about the importance of this book, that is was very radical, very sexual, but I had no idea about the content. And this is pretty much the same what every Portuguese knows about the book, they know that the book exists, they know about the three Marias, they have never read the book. And a couple of years ago I first read the nun’s book, and I found it very strange, it really felt like the hysterical dream of someone locked up in a convent, someone entertaining herself with these crazy phantasies. And because I read that I also said: “Ok finally I’m also going to read the book from the 70s.” It’s even in my parents’ book shelve, I could just take it. And then it was an absolute wonder, I’ve never imagined that first of all it is really a piece of literature. It manages to cross times, so it is not that much rooted in the 70s which I thought it would be, so that it couldn’t tell anything to a 21st century women. And then I realized it does, it still talks a lot to the Portugal of the 21st century, how women still construct their own identity and their own sexuality, their relationship to their family, to their friends, to political institutions. Because they managed to traverse centuries of Portuguese history, they wrote letters, they faked letters of the nun Mariana to the knight, and the knight writes back, and they wrote in the name of the mother, of the aunt, of people in the 18th century, in the 19th century, from high class, from low class; and they managed also to talk about colonialism, so Portugal then was in war with its colonies, so they talked about the war which was not possible to mention in any other place. It had such an impact on me, I thought: “Oh my god how couldn’t I have read this before”; it was here all the time. I just emailed everyone in the AMIW network and said: “Guys, girls, let’s do this. Let’s read this book collectively, let’s talk about it, let’s produce work that relates to it, and do another exhibition.” And that was the exhibition in 2010 at Casa da Esquina in Coimbra.

Which is a totally interesting project to take a text from the second women’s movement, which is even referring to an older text, and try to reread it under the conditions of the 21st century, so in the context of a kind of 3rd movement or as you said earlier of a rebirth of a feminist movement, in order to see what text from the 70s can give you not only for your life, but also for your feminist thinking, for your feminist practice…
And it also was very amazing that packed under it is so critical what they were doing, so conscious; there is one specific letter that gave us the title of the exhibition here in Vienna, and the letter just says: “Sisters, what can literature do? Or rather what can words do?” Which is exactly what you also question when you operate in an activist way in your own visual practice and you feel that for the activists you’re not activist enough, for the artists you’re not aesthetical enough. So you always feel that you fail in both, and you always have these questions, but then in the end: What does this do? What will it change? Will it change something? And even with AMIW: when you asked me, what was the reaction to it, I don’t really have an overview, I cannot really say if it has an impact, if it had an impact. But still there is hope. If we all do little things, we manage to change at least our own environment…I guess for me if I manage to change things that I very closely deal with, that’s already amazing for me.

Carla's website
All My Independent Women

Carla Cruz
Stefanie Grünangerl
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